When I traveled to London this summer, I knew I’d be seeing Buckingham Palace.
I just didn’t know I’d see so much of it.
As the official London residence of Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace is high on the list of tourist destinations. Most people visit the East Front of the palace to peer through the gilded main gates at the famous balcony where members of the royal family have lined up for special occasions and photo ops.
During my brief time in the city, I was staying at Cartref House, a family-run B&B in Belgravia. After owners Sharon and Derek James filled me up each morning with a delicious full English breakfast, they would point me in the right direction for whatever site was on my agenda.
And that direction always seemed to take me right past Buckingham Palace, just an easy 10-minute walk to the northeast. So, I got into the habit of using the Palace as a landmark to guide me out and back as I ventured toward such London sites as the Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, St James’ Palace, 10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, and The Tower of London.
What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to do at the Palace besides just poking your face through the gates.
Of course, you will want to do that. The two best times of day to visit the main gates of Buckingham Palace are early in the morning and just after dusk.
The brilliant morning sun is a photographer’s delight as it brightens up the majestic gates and ornate fences, the Royal Coat of Arms, and the various bronze and marble statues, including the Victoria Memorial, populating the square in front of the Palace.
The morning is also the best time to avoid the crowds of tourists. I showed up at 7:30am on a Sunday and almost had the place to myself. The pair of police bobbies hanging out at the front gate were more than happy to visit with me, unlike later in the day when they have their hands full with questions and comments.
You’ll also find sparse crowds in the evening, just after dusk. And a whole new set of photo opportunities as the facade is lit up for the night.
Of course, most people will gladly battle crowds at the Palace to view the very popular Changing of the Guard. The colorful ceremony takes place at 11:30am daily from May through July. After that, it’s held every other day. The whole thing lasts about an hour.
I viewed the ceremony from along The Mall, the wide avenue stretching from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch. I didn’t feel like dealing with the crowds closer to the gates, and, from my sidewalk perch, could easily count the buttons on the guardsmen’s tunics as they marched past just ten feet away.
Other than gawking at the gates and watching the Changing of the Guard, you might also want to actually go inside the Palace.
Normally, you’ll only get inside with an invitation from the Queen for some garden party, reception, or royal ceremony. But if you happen to be a lowly commoner, there are other ways to gain access to parts of the Palace.
For parts of the year, you can tour the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews. The Gallery exhibits a constantly changing selection of items from the Queen’s own collection of art treasures. It’s located along the south wall of the Palace, and will cost you around $14 to get in.
The Royal Mews is the Queen’s stables, where you can view all of her state vehicles, including the golden coach the Queen rode in for her Golden Jubilee in 2002. Also on display are Cleveland Bays and Windsor greys, the working horses of the Palace. This will also run you around $14 for admission.
Best bet for the Gallery and the Mews is a combo ticket for $25. Both are closed during the winter months, however.
If you really want to go inside the Palace, plan your visit for August or September. That’s when the Queen makes her annual visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland (the favorite of all her homes). During her absence, the 19 state rooms of Buckingham Palace are opened to the general public. At around $25 a ticket, this is well worth the access to the heart of the lavishly furnished palace. You’ll also tour the gardens and have time for a refreshment in the Garden Cafe.
Whatever time of year you’re in London, you’ll find plenty of activities in and around Buckingham Palace. Even if you just walk by it several times a day, it never fails to enchant. And if you ever feel the need for a change of scenery, while staying within the British territories, you may want to plan a trip to the British Virgin Islands on a yacht.
All photos by Phil Corless